Several of Team Momentum’s finest started the 2014 race season with a bang on February 22nd at Southern Cross in Dahlonega, GA. The course covers close to 50 miles of gravel road, some pavement, and over 6200 feet of total ascent.
Strong Field Toeing The Start Line
The race turned out the largest number of entrants its ever had. One of the strongest racers who toed the line was Gerry Pflug, a singlespeed aficionado from a town in central PA. Positioned on the front line next to Brian Toone, I knew if there was any chance of winning the SS category, I would need to keep his wheel within sight and if I didn’t see him again by the time of the second climb, I would have a snowball’s chance in hell of catching him. My location on the start line was sub-optimal, because as the race bottlenecks into the hay fields of the Montaluce winery (where it becomes less of a bike race and more like something out of Indiana Jones), you’re basically just trying not to get tangled in flying bikes and thorn bushes. I exited the final grass climb onto the pavement much further back than I would have liked to be. I didn’t exactly know where the leaders were, but I knew that they probably made some time flying through the CX tape and I anticipated an additional 30 people ahead of me.
Let The Climbing Begin
I spun as fast as I could on the pavement and hung on to a line of geared bikes to get me quickly to the beginning of the gravel. I turned my crank smoothly throughout the first 8 miles of the climb. I knew that this grade was good for Gerry’s gear, as it was mine. So I rode at the tempo I had done during my openers on the course the day before. I was lighting my legs up, and it felt really good. I rode the race without a power meter or cadence sensor, but I did have my heart rate monitor on. For the first 50 minutes of the race, I did not see a number below 170 bpm. I’m happy that I didn’t have watts to look at, because if I had known the data it probably would have made me think about backing off. But the beauty of the single speed is that you have no escape button. You’re riding or you’re walking. And walking sucks.
I passed several people on the first 5 miles of Winding Stair. I saw Hardwick Gregg, Jacob Tubbs, and then came up on the second SS I had seen since the start. It was Dan Rapp from PA, who notified me that Pflug was riding with Toone and that they were probably 3 minutes ahead by this point. I said, “so, does that make us #2 and #3 SS?” and he said, “I guess so.” Although this was motivating news, I realized that the grade was going to get much steeper, and I knew I wasn’t winning any races up a 28% gradient on a 38:18. So, after riding together for a while, I allowed Dan to pull away from me when I was riding about as slowly as I could have walked. I knew that if my legs continued to feel good after recovering from Winding Stair, I would have a chance to drill the next climb and make up any time he had gained on the descent. He, too, was on a rigid carbon mountain bike. This setup was quite popular this year. I suppose that the greatest benefit for descending, aside from bigger tires, is the control and confidence from hydraulic brakes. Descending technical corners with potholes, washboard ruts, and several wet and loose patches definitely can suck up some time on a rim-brake equipped cross bike. However, I do know that I can climb much faster on hard packed dirt on a cross bike.
Southern Cross Part II
After traversing the short pavement section between the two major climbs (on which I picked up a draft off a few geared riders), I hit the second dirt road which was essentially the beginning of the second climb. Maybe 5 miles into this climb, I saw that I was encroaching upon Dan again. His gearing was lighter than mine, so he was capable of climbing the super steep stuff faster than me. But when it came to turning over power on a gradual climb, my gear was more efficient. I passed him and continued pushing until I didn’t see him anymore. I allowed myself to drop back into more of a tempo rhythm. My legs were on fire, though my breathing not labored. I think this was also the first time my heart rate had gone below 170 the whole day. By this point, I knew that there was a slim chance of catching the front group.
I was riding a great race and as long as I ate right and didn’t have a flat or fly off the mountain, I would end up on the podium. I stayed on my normal caloric regimen and made sure to drink well. I had 3 bottles, so I expected to be out of water by the beginning of the paved road if I was making the time I was anticipating.
With around 18 miles to go, I ran into Reid Richesen cruising up one of the long kickers towards the end of the second sustained climb. He was riding strong and we rode together the rest of the way down the mountain and back onto the paved road. We made it about a mile together before he realized that I didn’t have enough gear to keep up and he dropped me like a bad habit. At this point in the race last year, I didn’t have much left. If anyone had caught me at this point last year, I would have been toast. This year, my training has been so true to racing that I knew to expect everything I was going through – mentally and physically. I was fatigued, but had enough left in the tank, that I could put in a dig on the final run up and grassy section of the course. I rode my way to a strong finish, with an unofficial time of 3 hours and 20 minutes. My official time was 3:24 – 2nd in Single Speed, 17th overall.
For me, the transition from cyclocross to road racing is a tough one. Throughout road season, I will likely have subtle withdrawals from ‘cross, but this race gives you a heaping dose of cross bike between your legs. I can honestly say that after I dismounted my bike at the Bici Coop house, I was ready for road racing to begin, mentally and physically.
I can’t think of a better way to start the season than this finish. Except to turn around the next day and sprint to a 2nd place finish in the ‘A’ race of the annual GS Montagna Rossa Training Race at Camp Sumatanga. Brian Toone wrote a great report, but I will save my fingers for a Rouge Roubaix writeup when its all said and done.